Here are some communication guidelines that I use to help the couples I work with learn to communicate better with each other.


Basic Guidelines for Constructive Discussions When in Conflict with Your Partner

(Follow the links for more information and perspectives)

As you begin dialogue:

  1. Don’t just rush into a discussion. Instead, ask if it’s a good time to talk.  If the other person says it is not a good time, set a time that will work for both of you.
  2. Keep your concentration on the conversation. Make eye contact with the other person and look interested.  Maintain your focus on the conversation and eliminate distractions such as TV, phones and videogames.

For the speaker:

  1. Focus on your pain; refrain from blame. Instead of blaming the other person, tune into the place in yourself that is feeling emotional pain; share that pain and express your feelings and needs.  These wordings work well: “I feel ____________ when _________________ because I __________________” or “I’m feeling ____________ about ____________  and I need _____________.”           
  2. Don’t make them yawn or yearn for “On and On Anon (a support group for families and friends of people who talk too long). Don’t go on and on when you are talking.  Give the other person a chance to show that they understand and to present their own point of view.  Limit what you are sharing to less than one minute; or about 20 seconds if hearing it back accurately is important to you.
  3. Talk about just one thing; don’t swing with the sink and everything. Talk about one specific issue at a time, not several things all at once, and don’t dredge up the past. Keep the focus on your feelings and needs related to the present situation.
  4. Don’t overshoot with an absolute. Avoid the use of “you never” or “you always” or other absolutes.  Such statements tend to result in defensiveness and might be considered “fighting words.”  A better choice might be to say, “It would help me if you would _____ more often or less often.”                         
  5. Give them a turn to share their concerns. When you have been sharing for a while and the other person has been listening and showing understanding of what you are saying, give them a chance to share their own thoughts, feelings, concerns and opinions, and listen to them as they have listened to you.

For the listener:

  1. Don’t counterattack, just repeat it back. Instead of reacting defensively to feeling blamed by the other person, actively listen to them by repeating what they are saying, and especially reflect what you hear about the other person’s feelings and needs.  Do not interrupt to correct or argue against what they are saying.  An interruption that could be constructive would be to ask them to stop for a minute so that you can make sure you understand what they are saying.
  2. Check what is meant; don’t assume or invent. Instead of assuming that you are correctly interpreting what the other person means by their comment or behavior, ask or invite the person to share what they are thinking or feeling.  Check with the other person about what they seem to be feeling by saying something like “You seem to be angry (or disappointed, etc.).  Am I right about that?”                                 
  3. Listen for their pain, not their blame. Instead of claiming that the other person is blaming you, listen for their feelings of emotional pain and show empathy for what they are going through.                                                           

As discussion continues:

  1. Don’t attack or abuse, or harass, or accuse. Do not allow yourself to resort to physical aggression, name-calling, insults, or bringing up something that you know will be an emotional trigger.
  2. When they’re right about it, don’t fight about it. Acknowledge when the other person is right about what they are saying, or that they have made a good point.
  3. Don’t imply they’re demented when you can’t comprehend it.  Instead of saying, “That’s crazy” or “You’re crazy,” let the person know that they have said or done something that you do not understand, and invite them to help you understand it.  Variations of “that’s crazy” are “that’s stupid,” or “you can’t really mean that,” or “what’s wrong with you?”
  4. Be wise; don’t advise (or tyrannize, or moralize). Don’t tell the other person what they “should” do or “have to” do, or what you would do.  If you would like them to behave differently, you can let them know what they could do that would be helpful to you.
  5. If you have a complaint, it’s best to make a request. If the other person is doing something that is a problem for you, instead of complaining about it, let them know what they could do to improve the situation.
  6. Take a break, leave the room; come back later and resume. If you see that the discussion has become an argument that is escalating and you are no longer able to listen to each other respectfully, take a time out.  Get back to the discussion later after things have calmed down.   If the other person needs to take a time out, respect their decision but check with them later to see if they are ready to resume the discussion.